Fabric7 banks on high-end x86 servers

A Silicon Valley start-up bets that AMD's Opteron processor and built-in networking will help its high-end x86 servers succeed where others fail.

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
A Silicon Valley start-up called Fabric7 has bet that Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor and built-in networking will help its high-end x86 servers succeed where others haven't.

Several companies have tried to build higher-end x86 servers--those with processors such as Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron. Servers from Data General and Sequent Computer Systems vanished after the companies were acquired. Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Intel canceled their eight-processor products. And, models sold today by IBM and Unisys haven't set the world afire.

Fabric7, an 80-employee company based in Mountain View, Calif., is taking a different approach, inspired by IBM's mainframes--powerful machines with copious networking capacity and processing power that can be subdivided to run different tasks. The start-up's target is mid-range Unix systems from Sun Microsystems, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, typically running databases or application servers, said Chief Executive Sharad Mehrotra.

The company is nothing if not ambitious. "We think we can take down the price structure almost fivefold, on average, across mid-range and high-end servers, and we still would make a lot of money," Mehrotra said. That doesn't mean they'll come cheap: The company's first server model's price will average between $100,000 and $250,000, he said.

That first model is the Q160 server, which accommodates as many as eight dual-core Opteron chips and as much as 128GB of memory. It can be subdivided into separate domains, each with its own operating system and dedicated input-output capacity for either storage or data networks. The networking capacity also can be used to bridge one server with another, letting the first use network adapters of the second. And the server has built-in acceleration of networking tasks, such as encryption and XML data processing.

Like many companies today, Fabric7 envisions a data center in which new operating systems are created and destroyed to adjust rapidly to changing work demands. Systems also can be reconfigured as they run to expand or shrink computing resources.

The company isn't trying to tackle the entire x86 market, where shipment volumes are high and profit margins low. "We carefully exclude from our product the volume server infrastructure," Mehrotra said. "We think there are plenty of players in that market, it's heavily commoditized and we don't know how to add value there."

But even entering the comparatively rarefied realm of higher-end servers isn't easy. Ex-Sun employee Andy Bechtolsheim founded a start-up called Kealia that designed eight-Opteron servers. But he had planned to sell them only for a narrow niche of media-handling tasks; it wasn't until Sun acquired his company that the designs were reoriented to the general-purpose server market.

AMD's Opteron, unlike Intel's rival Xeon, is well suited to higher-end systems with eight processors, Mehrotra said. As AMD releases chips that are suited for larger systems, Fabric7 plans to follow suit.

One hurdle for high-end x86 systems has been software support. Mehrotra believes Linux and Windows are mature enough now, though. Fabric7 hopes to have its servers certified to work with Linux from Red Hat and Novell by the end of the year and with Microsoft Windows Server 2003 by the spring. Certification with software companies such as those that sell databases comes next, he added.

The Q160 server incorporates the networking abilities that lets customers build the fabric of interconnected servers, but the company also plans a more conventional server, the Q80. That machine, also an eight-processor Opteron model, is due in January and will have prices averaging between $50,000 and $100,000, Mehrotra said.

The company has some credentials for a network-enabled server company. Mehrotra was one of the initial designers of Sun's UltraSparc V processor, though he left the company in 1999, long before the chip was canceled in 2004. He then founded a networking start-up, Procket Networks, which Cisco Systems acquired in 2004.

The company's chief hardware designer is Tom Lovett, an IBM distinguished engineer who formerly worked for Sequent. In charge of software is Nakul Saraiya, who was a principal engineer at Akamai Technologies.

The company has raised $32.5 million from investors including Selby Ventures Partners and New Enterprise Associates.